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Affording college has rarely been so hard. The loss of 9.5 million jobs in the last year means that few students and families have savings, and it is more challenging than ever to work to pay for school. Fortunately, Washington just authorized funding to help. This spring colleges and universities will have more than $25 billion in emergency aid to distribute to their students. To decide who gets it, they should not rely on information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. While using the FAFSA might seem to be the most expedient approach, it is likely neither the most equitable nor the most impactful.

Related: A worrying trend this fall: Decline in FAFSA applications

The FAFSA has long misunderstood students’ and families’ ability to pay for college. It captures a very narrow view of financial circumstances and labels in order to create its picture of the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. That number is based on tax information from two years ago (unless the student appeals, in which case the data are from last year’s taxes), and it does not consider debt, which has been rising during the pandemic. The EFC is also artificially truncated at zero, even though its real value can be (and often is) negative, particularly when students are helping out their families financially. This makes it even harder to decide how much help a student truly needs.

The flawed EFC is central to how traditional financial aid is allocated. But it should not be used to determine who gets emergency aid during a pandemic. Fortunately, Congress decided that those funds are not part of the standard federal financial aid program known as Title IV. Colleges and universities therefore have the freedom to distribute stimulus funds without requiring the FAFSA or using the EFC to determine need, and the emergency aid won’t be subject to the traditional audits.

Institutions should embrace that freedom. They should assess students’ current needs, including any material hardships students face, regardless of family income. The FAFSA does not consider many factors driving basic needs insecurity, including a student’s current living situation, health status and current use of public benefits programs. An LGBTQ student estranged from their middle-class family may be ineligible for need-based grants even though they lack parental support. Due to campus closures, the student may be couch-surfing and food-insecure. They may not be Pell-eligible, but that student needs emergency aid.       

The enormous federal investment in emergency aid, and the uncommon freedom for institutions to distribute it in nontraditional ways, is an extraordinary opportunity for institutions to promote enrollment, retention and even reenrollment for some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

In contrast, a low-income student with a $0 EFC may have benefited from the CARES Act, expanded access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a stimulus check, and thus be in a stable situation. On the other hand, a student with the same official EFC but an actual negative EFC may be unable to pay rent or utilities and be helping out her parents, who are out of work.

Using the FAFSA would likely lead institutions to cut checks to both of these low-income students but not to the LGBTQ student.

And, of course, the FAFSA cannot assess the needs of students who don’t file it — the millions of undocumented students, international students, noncredit students and dual-enrolled students, all of whom are, according to the law, eligible for the latest rounds of federal emergency aid funds. Even individuals who were enrolled in college in 2020 but left without a degree are now eligible for federal emergency aid.

It is time for higher education leaders to embrace the freedom that Congress afforded and rethink how they assess need and get money to students. Colleges can do better without creating multiple applications or hassle. It is hard to transform practices during such a stressful time, and difficult to trust the U.S. Department of Education to support innovation so soon after the reign of former Secretary Betsy DeVos and her constantly changing guidance. For some, these funds bring unwelcome additional work, and the payoff may seem unclear. But it should not be.

Consider a recent experiment at Compton College, a community college where most students have exceptional need. Last spring Compton engaged Edquity, an emergency aid technology platform, to deliver philanthropic dollars. Rather than relying on the FAFSA, Edquity uses a short, evidence-driven application with validated questions to assess need. Students apply online, completing the form in just seven minutes. Decisions are rendered and funds distributed within 48 hours.

In total, 289 students applied for support, and based on Compton’s available funds, 90 received grants. Some were on their way to degree completion but risked being derailed by the pandemic. According to an evaluation by an economist, just 11 percent of students who did not receive emergency aid completed their degrees by August, while 22 percent of comparable grant recipients graduated. That sizable difference is statistically significant.

Contrast that with a study by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, in which researchers collected data from students at 155 institutions in 42 states showed little evidence that emergency aid distributed under CARES, with its focus on the FAFSA, was effective.

But that does not mean that dollars aren’t needed. Rather, it may suggest that FAFSA was not good at targeting the support.

The enormous federal investment in emergency aid, and the uncommon freedom for institutions to distribute it in nontraditional ways, is an extraordinary opportunity for institutions to promote enrollment, retention and even reenrollment for some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Doing so is critical for the finances of students and institutions. Let’s not let the FAFSA get in the way.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of Sociology and Medicine at Temple University, president and founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and chief strategy officer at Edquity.

This story about the FAFSA was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Sara Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. As a certified financial aid administrator, the author’s following assertion is contrary to my profession’s current understanding of the HEERF:

    “…millions of undocumented students… all of whom are, according to the law, eligible for the latest rounds of federal emergency aid funds.”

    On the contrary, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the U.S. Department of Education has pointed to section 8 USC 1611(a) of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which prohibits certain noncitizens from receiving federal public benefits. https://askregs.nasfaa.org/article/34774/can-undocumented-students-and-international-students-receive-funds-under-the-cares-act

    Our institution has just gone through the first round of audits for these funds during which we had to demonstrate each student’s eligilbity, including their citizenship status. The only way many (most?) institutions capture this information is in the financial aid office through the FAFSA, which is why it why it was continued to be used for CRRSAA (HEERF II), and will likely also be used for ARP (HEERF III) as well.

  2. Additional comment, this information is not entirely accurate: “[The EFC] is based on tax information from two years ago (unless the student appeals, in which case the data are from last year’s taxes)”

    In fact, through an appeal, a financial aid administrator can use any 12 month period, including future projected income, to best asses the family’s financial strength and make adjustments in order to recalculate the EFC.

  3. Like the previous poster, I am also a financial aid administrator and am frustrated with the over-simplifications and misinformation in this article.

    Toward the beginning, the article states, “[The FAFSA] captures a very narrow view of financial circumstances and labels in order to create its picture of the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. That number is based on tax information from two years ago (unless the student appeals, in which case the data are from last year’s taxes).”

    In this last sentence the author puts one of the most powerful tools available to a financial aid administrator to advocate for and help students in parentheses. Financial aid administrators are allowed to make professional judgements, which the author here refers to as appeals. Professional judgements allow financial aid administrators to address many of the complex situations highlighted in this article (sudden homelessness, high medical expenses, inability to work due to illness). They are not as simple as plugging in the previous year’s income as this author suggests.

    If a financial aid office is not using professional judgements to make more nuanced changes to a student’s FAFSA than prior year income adjustments, then this may be where they are struggling to meet students’ complex needs.

    The article also states, “The FAFSA does not consider many factors driving basic needs insecurity, including a student’s current living situation, health status and current use of public benefits programs. ” This is false. The FAFSA asks three different questions regarding homelessness, and professional judgements could be used to help students in each of the situations outlined, depending on the details of each student’s individual situation.

    The FAFSA may need an overhaul, but we need financial aid offices who have the knowledge and inclination to understand and use the tools available to them to help students.

    The article goes on to state, “The EFC is also artificially truncated at zero, even though its real value can be (and often is) negative, particularly when students are helping out their families financially.” Later on, the article continues to talk about how many students would have negative EFCs if the FAFSA allowed it.

    This is a valid point, but the article fails to mention the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was recently past and will allow negative EFCs starting in 2023-2024. This bill contains several big updates to the FAFSA and how federal aid is awarded, and it’s a big oversight to not reference it in a research article criticizing how the FAFSA calculates students’ EFCs and federal aid.

    Towards the end this article trumpets a study, “by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, in which researchers collected data from students at 155 institutions in 42 states showed little evidence that emergency aid distributed under CARES, with its focus on the FAFSA, was effective.”

    This is misleading information, as the study in question focuses on the time period of mid-April to mid-May. Many schools did not get their HEERF allocations by then, and those that did, still needed to build the infrastructure to determine which students received the funds and have this process reviewed and approved by school leadership and general counsel.

    There is no evidence that the students surveyed did not later get an emergency grant or that their schools had even started awarding the funds at the time the survey was done. I believe that if this survey was done even 1-2 months later the results would be night and day. It is misleading and unfair to claim that there was, “little evidence that emergency aid distributed under CARES, with its focus on the FAFSA, was effective.”

    I do not believe that disregarding the information students submit on their FAFSAs will allow for the distribution of emergency aid to be an easier or more equitable process for students.

    However, I do believe that the process can be made more equitable by using the tools and information available and genuinely advocating for and working to understand students’ unique and evolving situations.

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